milk central

We’re slowly getting the hang of this milk thing. I’m working with three — no, four — main components: the milk, yogurt, cheese, and whey. Here, let me show you.

The Milk
The first few weeks, I thought the milk tasted stronger than it should. Farmy, or something. I’d read that a rapid chill-time was key to keeping milk fresh-tasting, so I started making my younger son keep the “collecting” bucket in a pan of ice water while he was milking, and now the milk tastes much better. 

While my son was getting a bit faster at milking, it was still taking him at least an hour to get a gallon and a half. So, at my dad’s urging, we borrowed an electric milker from a neighbor and now he’s getting two-plus gallons in about fifteen minutes. (Update: this morning it took three minutes.) The whole process still takes time — setting up, washing the milker afterwards — but it’s much faster.

We get hardly any cream! We’re not sure why — is she saving all the hind milk (where the cream is) for the calves? is her diet missing something? is it because she’s a Holstein? — and I’m pretty bummed about it, but, oh well. I never skim the milk. We just shake the cream in before using it, and if I want cream, I buy it from the store. 

Yogurt Making
A friend told me that boiled milk makes a thicker yogurt, which seemed counterintuitive — one would think that a barely heated milk would allow for more bacterial growth which would then lead to a thicker yogurt — so I experimented: barely heated fresh milk versus boiled milk, and, sure enough, the boiled milk was thicker.

I’ve also tried stirring a bit of xanthan gum into the milk prior to heating and incubating. The resulting yogurt was extremely thick — nearly half of it was whey — but far too tangy and grainy. So never mind that idea.

with the xanthan gum: grainy

I’ve also strained some of the homemade yogurt to make Greek yogurt. I like it, but I think I prefer the looser, non-drained version. It’s lighter and sweeter. More refreshing. 

My mom doesn’t like the layer of cream that you get on the top of homemade, raw-milk yogurt and challenged me to figure out a way to make it without that separation. I queried all my raw milk yogurt-making family members and friends, and did a bunch of internet research, but no luck. Apparently, a cream cap on raw milk yogurt is just par for the course. Sorry, Mom. Just scrape off the cream cap and carry on.

The other day I made some yogurt that turned out wildly tangy. I had no idea why; I’d done it the exact same way the day before. Perhaps I’d left it in the incubator for a little too long? But I’ve left it in even longer other times and it’s been fine. The only other thing I could think of was that I was also making two cheeses at the time and perhaps a bit of citric acid dust floated through the air and screwed it all up? Who knows. We fed it to the dogs.

I still haven’t landed on a perfect yogurt-making formula. Sometimes, for whatever reason, there’s more whey on top, or it’s super creamy or extra thick, or it’s unusually sweet. I can’t figure it out. I know a lot of you making your own yogurt at home, so if you’ve discovered some tricks — religiously temping the milk, using fresh starter every time, or using a lot of starter or a very little starter, whatever — please share. I’d love to get really good at this.

Future yogurt plans: I’m starting to sell some of the homemade yogurt to a few friends, and I want to try making these long-term storage yogurt cheeses, which means I may need to haul my dehydrator down from the attic since, in the dehydrator, I can make a gallon or more of yogurt in one go. Anything else I should make with the yogurt?

I’ve been steadily experimenting: ricotta, fromage blanc, queso fresco, queso blanco, cuajada (a Nicaraguan farm cheese), paneer, etc. The actual names are sort of confusing, since, in some cases the methods are almost identical — like, paneer and queso blanco are basically the same thing, and ricotta is like paneer but without the pressing, and so on. 

set with rennet and mesophilic starter: for queso fresco

The similarities make me think that cheesemaking is, perhaps, a lot like making bread: once you get a feel for it, you can kind be as precise or as casual as you like — it all depends on what you’re going for.

set with rennet: for cuajada

So I’m beginning to relinquish my death grip on the recipes and instead focus on how it feels, messing around with different coagulants and temperatures and methods, as per however the heck I feel and based on what I want. It’s liberating.  

curds for queso fresco

So far, cuajada might be my favorite — I’m building the recipe based on memory, and some internet research — and paneer is a close second. Ricotta third.


after six hours at 35 pounds of pressure: queso fresco

But these cheeses are quite different from their store-bought equivalents, so you can’t always use them interchangeably. Therefore, I’m working to create my own cheeses that I’ll name based on how I use them. Accurately-named cheeses will help manage expectations and allow me to keep my methods straight in my head.

butter chicken with paneer


So… recipes forthcoming, I hope. Stay tuned!

I don’t have a good use for the whey.

I’ve made bread with it — whey in place of water — but while it makes a wonderfully tender bread, it only uses a few cups. And I have gallons.

One friend suggested using the whey to make mint tea.
I said that sounded gross.
She said, Think mango lassi.
Me, Oh.

But then I tried it and, while actually surprisingly good, the tea had a heavier mouthfeel and I’m used to mint tea being light and bright. But I bet it’d be good in a smoothie, yes? (Or it would be, anyway, if I wasn’t already making smoothies to use up all the milk and yogurt.)

And then another friend suggested using the whey in place of water in soups — potato, veggie, chowder, etc — but again: I have gallons of the stuff. Also, it’s not exactly soup weather.

So for now I’m either feeding the whey to the dogs or dumping it down the drain.

One enormous plus of all this milk? We’ve dramatically reduced our plastic waste. I never really thought about it all that much, but now, after a morning of cheese and yogurt making, the counter will be littered with dirty jars and I can’t help but realize how much plastic I’m not using. It’s a pretty cool feeling. 

This same time, years previous: the coronavirus diaries: week thirteen, margarita mix, energy boost, the family reunion of 2017, the quotidian (6.8.15), delivery, thorns, grilled flatbread.


  • Thrift at Home

    I am loathe to make those fresh cheeses anymore because I was stumped at the volume of whey! So keep us posted.

    I love your milk adventures!

    I find that when I also do not stir the starter into the milk, the yogurt cultures better. So I put a dollop of starter yogurt in the bottom of the jar and pour the heated and cooled milk over it, no stirring. I’ve used the same wild starter for years and years as long as I do it this way and make yogurt about every week. My understanding of the reason for bringing the milk to 180 is that it kills bacteria that compete with the yogurt culture. One recipe I saw even said to keep it at a low simmer for a half hour for premium yogurt – I have rarely had the patience to experiment with that. I’m guessing it’s just richer, but I already use non-homogenized whole milk, so I don’t bother.

  • Rosanna Nafziger Henderson

    For the whey: maybe try brunost! If you boil whey with a little cream, it eventually cooks down to a savory, caramelized spreadable cheese. The yield is quite low, so it definitely uses up *lots* of whey. The brunost will have a different flavor based on the cultures you used originally (e.g. yogurt whey will make it more tart). But the chief flavor comes from caramelized milk sugar, so of course it’s wildly delicious.

  • Ellen

    I second the suggestion to use the whey on plants! My mom uses it to water her house plants. You could fill your upstairs nook with some whey-watered plants 🙂

  • Eldon

    The breed of cow is why you’re not getting much cream. Holsteins were bred to produce huge volumes of milk with low fat content.
    If you want cream, get yourself a Jersey. I’m a bit biased, but I’m convinced Jerseys are the best family cow possible. They are a smaller, much older breed, so they typically produce between 1 and 2 gallons per milking if they don’t have a calf with them. Cream content can be as high as 30% of the entire volume early in the lactation period, but usually is around 10-15%.
    Another benefit to the smaller stature is that you can push them around. I used to work in a dairy with 70+ holsteins and trying to move one of those big cows was like trying to move a truck. Jerseys are great, need to move her a bit to get a better milking position? Just give her a bit of a push and she will move with no complaints. I also think Jerseys are smarter and have much more personality. If you take a herd of Holsteins and add just one Jersey, within a few days, that Jersey will be running the whole show. It’s actually hilarious to watch a herd of hulking great black and white behemoths, clearly taking all their cues from this small brown cow. Plus, those little jersey calves are absolutely adorable!

    • Jennifer Jo

      Butterscotch is, according to the guy we got her from, “heavily Jersey with some Milking Short Horn and possibly Normandy.” So maybe in two years we’ll transition to a new milk cow?

      • Eldon

        If she’s truly a large part Jersey, I’d be shocked that you’re getting no cream. She’s pasture fed, right? I’d be curious to see if taking away the calf would make a difference, but that would significantly reduce your flexibility as she would be dependent entirely on your son to milk her. Probably not worth the trouble unless you have local friends who can milk if you’re away.

  • Becky R.

    I make my own yogurt, but I do not have access to raw milk. The more protein and fat in the milk, the thicker the yogurt. You do need to heat the milk to boiling in order to increase the protein content in the milk. Heat activates lactoglobulin which is one of the main proteins in whey, which allows it to participate in the mesh of proteins available to thicken the yogurt. Otherwise, it remains inactive. I usually heat my milk in the microwave in the time I have figured out works for me. I have an 1100 watt microwave, and I heat a quart for 7 minutes. Then I let it cool, add about 1 T. of starter from previously made yogurt and ferment it until it gets thick enough for me. But not too thick, because I don’t like it too tangy. Adding more starter beyond that amount will often result in thinner yogurt because the bacteria multiply so quickly that they exhaust their food supply in the milk.

    Some people add nonfat dry milk after heating the milk (it will boil over in the microwave if I add this before I heat it), and it does make the yogurt thicker, but many people say it changes the taste. I have never noticed that. I don’t use it in every batch. Others put gelatin or other thickeners in it, but I don’t like commercial yogurt that uses it since I don’t want my yogurt to “jiggle”.

    I laughed about your mother’s complaint about cream topped yogurt since I often add cream to the milk before I make yogurt. I LOVE cream topped yogurt. The mouth feel is superb! If I was close, I would buy some cream topped yogurt from you!

    You could try some thermophilic yogurt cultures which produce thicker yogurt. I have some in my freezer, but I have not yet used them. They are from all over the world.

    There are artisans that make lots of different fermented cheeses, and David Asher has written an entire book about it. He also has a website called the Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking. I cannot vouch for his methods, but he a cult leader in this area.

    As for whey, I usually end up putting it all down the drain since I don’t have animals to feed it to, and really, how much whey can you use in cooking? If you are going to put it on your garden, you probably need to check the pH of your soil and take into consideration whether the plants are acid loving or not.

    I also have some mesophilic cultures to make room temp yogurt, but I have not as yet used them either. Can you tell I have made an exhaustive study of yogurt making? I fell down the rabbit hole several years ago when I was getting inconsistent results from my efforts.

    You have the best culinary adventures at your place!!!

  • Crystal Trost

    whey can been given to chickens. Put it in a bowl and let them drink it or mix it with their feed. Just make sure not to mix up more than they will eat in a day.

  • Kris Shank Zehr

    I’ve found the same thing with yogurt made from raw milk (thinner) or pasteurized milk (thicker). I think the raw milk enzymes and beneficial bacteria must somehow cancel or compete with the yogurt culture bacteria. So I heat the milk to 160F to kill those bacteria (I don’t think it needs a full boil) and then promptly take it off the heat and let the pot sit open under the oven vent to cool back down to 118F before I add the yogurt culture. My incubation method of choice is to place the tightly sealed closed quart jars of future yogurt into a 95F water bath (up to the lids) in a closed insulated cooler overnight or 8-12 hours. Works pretty well most of the time if I’m using reasonably fresh starter (not too old and sour) and follow the temps. I’ve noticed that a water bath of higher than 95F (97F or more) seems to be connected to less thick yogurt.

  • Karren

    I second the whey in the garden option. Roses love whey in particular. I make a gallon of yogurt each 10 days or so, save 2/3 for smoothies, and hang the rest for soft fresh cheese. All the whey goes on the flower beds and in the veggie garden..

  • Pam

    There’s a solution to this: you need a pig. Pigs loooove discarded milk, whey– they’ll even drink chocolate milk. And then all of that excess milk gets magically converted into bacon. I worked on a farm a few years ago that kept pigs, and they took buckets and buckets of spoiled milk from other local farms and gave it to their pigs.

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